How agriculture adds fuel to the fires

When we talk about wildfires, we usually talk about the well known tinderbox areas of Australia, California, and southern Europe. But, as recent events have shown, fires are a global concern. So much so that we have seen places like the UK (that well known “green and pleasant land”) and places as far north as Sweden burning. These unprecedented events show that nowhere can now be considered ‘safe’ from the risk of fires.

For us here at Mazi, this is not just something happening somewhere far away- this is very real and very personal. A few weeks ago, Greece saw some of deadliest wildfires ever known to Europe. The tragic fires that happened on our doorstep in Mati shows the seriousness of the situation, and have been a harsh reminder that we are still, and will continue to be, far from invincible to the forces of nature.

 The fires at Mati saw devastation to wildlife and livelihoods. Source: The Guardian, 2018

The fires at Mati saw devastation to wildlife and livelihoods. Source: The Guardian, 2018

Currently, every year, fires consume vast swathes of land, and everything else in their path along the way - plants, trees, homes, livelihoods, animals and humans. In windy, dry and hot conditions, wildfires can sweep through landscapes in mere minutes. And their economic and social impacts are felt well beyond their charred edges.

That being said, it’s important to recognise that fires are not inherently bad. Like everything else, fires are contextual - in adapted ecosystems, fires play an important ecological role through, for example, nutrient cycling and ecosystem disruption. In fact, they have played a key role in evolution of both our environments and us, with our cultures built around fire and it’s abilities to transform raw food, gifting us with the energy we needed to fuel our development. But in places that historically did not evolve for fire, or in places where fire has become far too prevalent, is it environmentally destructive, releasing vast amounts of  carbon dioxide into the atmosphere whilst burning people's livelihoods to the ground.

So what do these fires have to do with agriculture? Well, everything. The way we manage the millions of kilometres of land we use to grow our food is key to quelling fires; sympathetic and intelligently managed land is an oasis, whereas poorly managed, degraded land is kindling.

Regenerative agriculture  works to prevent fire, and/or the detrimental effects of fire, in a number of ways. Firstly, it increases organic matter in the soil. This means two things; better water retention and more quality soil. Organic matter on and in soil is rapidly combusted by fire, therefore reducing the amount of organic matter in the soil. Agroforestry techniques, such as cover cropping, mulching and composting, work to quickly rebuild organic matter in degraded areas which, in the event of a fire, provides a safety buffer of soil organic matter that can be drawn upon, allowing the system to bounce back much quicker.

Furthermore, ground-water and soil moisture levels are correlated with fire retardation. This makes logical sense - any would be kindling is wet which, as any ‘happy camper’ in the British ‘summer’ can tell you for free, will not burn despite best efforts. Similarly, soil with high water retention will not burn so easily.  Organic matter plays a key role in soil water retention - just a 1% increase in soil organic matter equates to 150,000 litres of water stored in the ground per hectare. Water storage in the soil also means that during dry spells, leaf litter is able to draws up water through capillary action which keeps it from drying out. This is why everything we do at Mazi focuses on soil building, from wood chipping all the organic matter that would otherwise have been burned in the region (check out this video of us for more info) to mulch our land, to our huge compost project we have in the works which will bring life and organic matter to our soil.

Secondly, agroforestry works to prevent fire through intelligent incorporation of plants in a diverse polyculture. Intercropping plants and trees with different properties reduces the risk of fire and increases landscape resilience. For example, conifer foliage is notoriously flammable due to the high content of resins and oils. But combining conifer foliage with broadleaf trees drastically reduces the risk of fire compared to a pure conifer monoculture. These fire resistant trees can also be planted as a fire break around plantations for protection, such as the carob trees we are planting here at Mazi. As well as intercropping different fire resistant trees such as  we have also incorporated prickly pears into our intercropping strategy which, in addition to helping to prevent fire, also provide a tasty fruit crop.

Lastly, in general, trees (specifically native trees) play a key role in fire prevention. Dense regrowth and closed woodlands of native species are promoted as fire protection methods. This works to prevent the intensity of fires by changing the nature of them, for example switching from crown to surface fires. This means that instead of burning the trees all the way to the top creating intense and unmanageable fires (‘crown fire’), only the ground litter is burned which creates the least devastation for the woodland and are the easiest to put out (‘surface fire’).

The heat is (literally) on to build a more resilient agricultural system capable of offering practical solutions for our degraded and fire prone landscapes. Farmers may make unlikely firefighters, but agroforestry systems can make a formidable firebreak and I don’t know about you, but I’d say that’s definitely something to get fired up about.

Thanks for reading!

Tash



Why black and white thinking won’t work in a grey world

By now, you’ve hopefully read some of our blogs about regenerative agriculture (and if not, what are you waiting for? Click here to check out our latest pieces). If so, you’ve figured out that we’re trying to do things a little differently here at Mazi by implementing a forward-thinking agriculture which works towards a more resilient, happier, healthier tomorrow.

It may at first seem like that this kind of agriculture, with its focus on diverse polycultures, building soil health and using only organic inputs, is inherently at odds with conventional, industrial agricultural practices. It is easy to think of these systems as separate and opposing entities, non-compatible neighbours who argue over their high fences. But this ‘othering’ only serves to create animosity rather than the resilient food system we need.

 
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Yes, industrious, extractive and destructive farming exists, and this must be addressed- but so do many farmers that care for the earth and are just trying to get by and make a decent living.  From our experience here at Mazi, we know all too well that farm life brings with it complications. Sometimes, for whatever reason, compromises have to be taken and things don’t always go the way you wanted. It is not by pointing fingers that we will start transitioning our agriculture. Producing food, and providing the worlds vital sustenance, is no easy task and we have enormous respect for each and every farmer working to put food on our tables everyday.

It is for this reason that, far from being prescriptive, regenerative agriculture instead works to be a toolbox of farm-ready techniques and practices that can be chosen and adapted to different contexts.  Rather than a dogmatic approach, regeneration can take many shapes and sizes in the path to agricultural transition. Whether you are big, small, conventional, organic, regenerative or otherwise, there is something in regenerative agriculture for all.

It is the enormous potential of this hybrid approach which makes regenerative agriculture so exciting. Incorporating a few easily implementable, small changes can make a huge difference, regardless of your context.  For instance, research has shown that planting strips of wildflowers across fields of wheat monocultures drastically reduces pest pressure, therefore slashing pesticide use. Incorporating wildflowers in this way resulted in an increase in wheat yields of up to 10% (plus it comes with the added bonus of making the place look pretty at the same time!). Studies have also shown that planting strips of trees, or ‘shelter-belts’, around fields offer an array of benefits. For example, they can help protect plants against drought by modifying the microclimate around the crop by reducing wind speeds which removes moisture from the air. Research has shown that in this way, shelter-belts increase wheat yields by at least 3.5%. Trees can also help to reduce pesticide spray drift by trapping pesticides in their leaves, and even only a 10m tree belt has been shown to reduce ammonia in emissions by about 53%.  Lastly, only a 1% increase in organic matter in the top six inches of soil is enough to drastically change the soils water holding capacity by 20,000  gallons of water per hectare. Even without an overhaul in practices, all of these small steps can add up to a big difference not just for the environment, but your wallet.

Equally, regenerative agriculture must not automatically reject innovations gained through industrial agriculture. For all of its problems, industrial agriculture has brought with it a whole host of technologies and techniques which can be intelligently incorporated into regenerative agriculture for our benefit. Examples include smart mechanisation, such as tractors and keyline ploughs, which (unless we suddenly find millions of people struck with a serious case of green fingers) will be necessary to provide enough food for everyone. Other technologies we have borrowed here on Mazi include our drip irrigation system, which has saved time, water and many, many trees.  

There is a reason that we are called Mazi. Mazi in Greek means together, and we believe that it is only together, pooling knowledge and resources, borrowing tools and inspirations and adapting techniques to a range of contexts that we can create meaningful change. It is not our aim to separate ourselves with an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, but instead to unite, adapt and share.

‘Lettuce’ work together create the kind of tomorrow we’re working towards!

Thanks for reading,

Tash

The Dorito Effect: The truth about Food and Flavour

If you ask someone why they want to eat something, the answer is usually because it tastes good. Whichever food fad you follow, however long you spend counting calorie after calorie, however much we like to pretend we’re seeking out nutrients, vitamins and essential oils- ultimately it’s a flavour high that we’re all after. We make our food choices because we love the way the food tastes.

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It’s not often that a book concerning health and food encourages you to give in to your taste buds. But that’s exactly what Mark Schatzker’s illuminating new book, ‘The Dorito Effect- The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavour’, wants you to do. Yes, you heard that right. Far from the usual telling-off you we’ve learned to expect in most discussions about nutrition, this book not only encourages you to indulge your pleasure seeking food behaviour, but argues that our health depends on it. Now that’s the kind of nutritional advice I can get on board with -although there is a catch.

This book delves deep into the relationship between flavour and food which, as it turns out, is a important part of the puzzle which has been sorely missing in our discussions around food. The main crux of Schatzker’s argument is that in nature,  flavour appears alongside nutrition, i.e. flavour = nutritional quality. Far from being the cause of our food problems, our flavour fascination is actually nature’s way of helping us get the healthy nutrients and vitamins, or as Schatzker refers to them ‘plant secondary compounds’, we need to survive. He argues therefore that flavour hedonism actually holds the key to reversing our health crisis, but if only we can reconnect food and flavour. However, the problem is that the way we have been practising agriculture, specifically the way in which we have selected for certain traits (such as shelf life and transportability) means the flavour has been diluted out of our food and, along with it, all the things which makes it wholesome and healthy.

 

Schatzker’s second, concurrent line of argument is that whilst we have been steadily divorcing flavour from nutrition, we have simultaneously been creating ever-more convincing artificial flavours. So, in short, we have become very good at making bad food taste good and good food taste bad. Eating has therefore become more about tricking our taste buds than the nutritional experience that they were originally designed for. It is this that Schatzker calls ‘the Dorito effect’, i.e. the process of taking something with relatively little nutritional value (plain corn chips) and managing to convince ourselves that we are eating something else (tacos). This leads Schatzker to add his own definition of junk food; “food that tastes like something it is not”.

The idea that humans may possess an innate nutritional wisdom may sound a little far fetched to you, but Schatzker creates a compelling argument robustly backed up with sound science. Thoroughly researched and resolute, The Dorito Effect is a  light and humorous read which steers you gently through the science of flavour research. By combining many perspectives from the agricultural and flavour world, it offers a refreshing and fascinating read.

This carries huge implications for the role of agriculture in producing and selecting for flavoursome, nutrient rich food. This applies not just to breeding and seed selection but also the actual techniques used which drowns out flavour (and therefore nutrition) from our food, such as over application of fertiliser and building of soil quality. Clearly this highlights the imperative of developing agricultural systems that are able to genuinely feed the world high quality nourishment. Although this is touched upon by Schatzker in his book, the main focus is given to proving  the link between flavour and nutritional value. His work could therefore make an interesting platform to expand upon research between agricultural techniques and flavour.

Clearly, flavour is a big cause for corn-cern and I enjoyed this book so much I just had to taco-’bout it. Hopefully you enjoyed reading about it too!

Tash

 

Why Regenerative Agriculture?

Humanity, and the planet that we have the privilege to call home, is facing no shortage of problems. Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Peak Oil. Food insecurity. Chances are you’re probably familiar with at least a few of these. Any one of these issues alone threatens life as we know it on our planet. Unfortunately, much like buses, they have come along all at once.

Our best minds have been hard at work engineering solutions for these problems, which read like a playbook straight out of Orwell's mind. From pumping our skies full of sulphur, to flooding our fields with poisons (what could possibly go wrong...?), every technofix you can imagine, plus many more you cannot begin to, has been proposed. But humans, as we are so adept at doing, have missed a trick.

“Every problem has a solution. Sometimes it just takes a long time to find the solution- even if it's right in front of your nose”

- Lemony Snicket

And there is already a solution to all of these problems, one which relies upon already perfectly honed feats of engineering. But this engineering is not the work of humans, and it doesn’t involve us looking up into the sky- instead, we must look down at what lies beneath our feet.

There is one thing that lies at the crossroads of all of our problems; agriculture. The way we grow our food affects everything: our health, the health of our ecosystems, waters and wildlife, our atmosphere, our access to safe, nutritious food and thriving of our communities.

The way we choose to practise agriculture therefore has a huge impact on our world. Whether this impact is immensely positive or negative is our choice.

With our fondness for vast monocultures of crops, the use of tonnes of synthetic chemical inputs and the routine deep tilling of our soil, we are clearly currently on the negative side of things. So much so, in fact, that is has led the WWF to conclude that unsustainable agricultural practices present the greatest immediate threat to species and ecosystems around the world.

By treating our soils like dirt, we are making our food system - the one we depend upon every day to provide us vital sustenance - incredibly precarious. It has been predicted that with current rates of soil degradation and topsoil loss, there are only a meagre 60 harvests left. Furthermore, agriculture as it’s currently practised is completely dependent on a rapidly dwindling resource; fossil fuels, used for everything from transport to pesticides. This, combined with it’s appetite for deforestation, makes agriculture the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the energy sector.

But what if that impact doesn’t have to be negative? What if instead we could harness the power of agriculture to be a regenerative force instead of a degenerative one? What if there was a way to turn the problem into the solution?

FARMING FOR THE FUTURE

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that cultures more than just crops, but cultures also soil, biodiversity, a safer environment and a better world.

But, more than that, regenerative agriculture is a big picture, i.e. ‘holistic’, approach to farming which brings together new and old ideas to encourage environmental, social and economic innovation. Each of these three pillars are vital to create a truly sustainable food system able to stand the test of time.

 Regeneration in action: before/after sowing cover crops on Mazi Farm

Regeneration in action: before/after sowing cover crops on Mazi Farm

Regenerative agriculture harnesses the intelligence of nature to satisfy our own for our own needs whilst respectfully cohabiting with the life around us. It does this by mimicking nature’s patterns, working with her rather than against. Regenerative agriculture understands that everything in nature has a function in the system and uses this knowledge to design our farms. This means, for example, including a diversity of crops instead of only one, or ensuring the soil is always covered, like in a forest ecosystem. In this way, our food systems can work independently without the need for costly inputs (including not only chemical and physical inputs, but also time and energy - for more information about that, check out our recent blog post on the efficiency of regenerative agriculture), much like a forest manages itself without any human help. In this sense, regenerative farmers become system managers rather than combatants.

In this way, regenerative agriculture works to fix the common underlying theme of many of our problems- the disconnect between humans and nature and the way she works. Instead fighting the way nature has evolved over millennia to manage itself, it puts us on the same team and allows us to go with nature’s flow. The problem is, nature is powerful - much more powerful than we humans like to think- and, regardless of the continual new and innovative repertoire of weapons at our disposal, this is a fight we will ultimately never win.

Regenerative agriculture goes beyond both organic and ‘sustainable’ practices by working to improve our resource base we use and depend upon, instead of merely maintaining it in its current state.  In doing so, it stores carbon in our trees and soils, protects our soils from erosion whilst actively building soil, provides much needed sanctuaries for depleted wildlife such as birds and insects and keeps our waterways and air clean. Regenerative agriculture works to make ecosystems healthy because when they thrive, we thrive.

SO WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?

There are many different ways that regenerative techniques are being applied to create productive systems capable of sustaining our populations both now and in the future. For example, it’s harnessing the power of livestock - the much maligned environmental enemy- for good, asserting animals’ place in the ecosystem as mobile composters through the intelligent use of grazing, championed by the likes of Allan Savory and Joel Salatin.

  New Forest Farm, Wisconsin

New Forest Farm, Wisconsin

  Ridgedale Permaculture Farm, Sweden

Ridgedale Permaculture Farm, Sweden

Instead of looking to complex carbon sequestering techniques, regenerative agriculture is incorporating fruit and nut bearing trees (i.e. ‘agroforestry’) to act as carbon sponges whilst nourishing both our ecosystems and humans, such as with the farms of Mark Shepherd and Ernst Gostch. It’s focusing on soil building techniques to help water retention in even the driest regions of the world, like at the Singing Frogs Farm in California. It’s using diverse enterprises and borrowing expertise from other sectors to make small farms streamlined and profitable, with the work of farmers like Ben Hartman and Richard Perkins. It’s transforming the idea of what market gardening can be, with the techniques perfected by Jean-Martin Fortier. It’s emphasising the power of microbiology in farming, with the work of Elaine Ingham. Finally, it’s helping to reconnect communities by pulling people from all walks of life, from musicians to professional surfers, back into the agricultural fold, regenerating rural communities such as at Moy Hill Farm and through associations such as the reNature foundation.

So here’s hoping we learn from the lessons of the past, and stop making the same mistakes time and time ‘a-grain’!

Thanks for reading,

Tash


















 

Here’s why industrial agriculture won't feed the world

By 2050, there will be several billion more mouths on our planet to feed. To keep up with the increasing demands of our growing population, we need an innovative and efficient agricultural system that is able to produce more with fewer resources.

When we talk about alternative food production systems, like agroforestry and holistic grazing, the first thing we usually hear is something along the lines of “yes, but that will never be enough to feed the world”. Behind this statement is the implicit idea that that industrialised agriculture, with it’s highly mechanised, large-scale monocultures and intensive use of synthetic chemical inputs, is the ‘most efficient’ way to produce our food. But, when you take a closer look, a very different picture emerges - one of an absurdly inefficient system that is verging on insanity.

What do we mean by ‘efficiency’?

It might be an obvious thing to say, but it’s important to point out firstly that the idea of agricultural ‘efficiency’ relies wholly on our definition of efficiency. ‘Efficiency’ in agriculture is, for the most part, focused almost exclusively on crop yields- but this excessive focus on yields ignores a whole host of other important factors that our crop production relies on.

Imagine, for example, you were only to focus on calorie intake as a measure for nutritional health of a human being. Eating pizza for every meal every day might then seem like a great idea - loads of calories, so this should make you really healthy! Right? Clearly, by eating pizza all the time, you could easily fulfil your caloric intake for the day but measuring health like this misses the bigger picture of nutritional health i.e. that humans also need a diverse variety of food types in their diet with a range of nutrients and vitamins essential for human health.

Similarly, in agriculture, by focussing on only yields as a measure of success, we’re missing the bigger picture of agricultural and ecosystem health. So what happens if we start to look at efficiency from other angles?

 Here’s a great diagram that we think demonstrates our point very succinctly- how conventional agriculture is a false economy of efficiency  © The Guardian (2016)

Here’s a great diagram that we think demonstrates our point very succinctly- how conventional agriculture is a false economy of efficiency  © The Guardian (2016)

Calories per hectare

A persistent argument in favour of industrialised agricultural practices is that it produces more food per hectare- but this doesn’t hold true. In fact, smallholder farms produce 70% of the worlds food on less than a quarter of all farmlands. How do they do it? By diversifying. Perhaps industrial farming produces more of one crop per hectare, but it cannot compete with a concentration of different crops on the same parcel of land. Imagine, for instance, you were to plant three crops; say, maize, beans and squash.

Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, Squash

To get three hectares of crops, you have the choice. Either you can mono-crop each crop and have one hectare of each across three hectares. Or, you could plant them all together- the beans climbing up the maize, the squash covering the floor and the maize growing up into the sky. You can therefore produce three hectares of each crop on only one hectare. This creates what is called an overyielding poyculture. This is the classic ‘three sisters’ growing method, but the same model of thought can be applied intelligently to all crops. In an agroforestry system, such as here at Mazi, that means trees combined with other crops underneath and between the tree lines, as well as animals that graze the grass underneath the canopies. In this way, you maximise on space, time (spent walking around checking the crops), calories produced per hectare and photosynthetic efficiency (i.e. maximising light, one of the major factors that plants need to grow the sugars, carbohydrates and other compounds we need for food).

Fossil fuel use

Every facet of industrial agriculture, from the production of the synthetic chemical inputs it relies on, to food processing and transportation, is rooted in cheap access to fossil fuels. As Joel Salatin puts it, we are the first culture in the world that has ever put an average of 1500 miles between producer and consumer. Whereas before, 1 calorie on the table took an average of ¼ of a calorie of energy to get there, today it takes 15 calories to produce 1 calorie of food energy.

This over-reliance on fossil fuels is a false economy, working only by borrowing from the future to produce for today, which makes our food system very unstable. When the day (inevitably) comes that access to fossil fuels is no longer cheap nor readily available, such as during the 1973 oil crisis, our whole agricultural system will be brought to its knees.

Regenerative practices, on the other hand, rely much less on fossil fuels and much more on renewable, non-polluting resources, which makes it both more resilient and more efficient in the long term.

Economic efficiency

When we take a more holistic approach to agricultural costs, it becomes obvious that conventional agriculture costs much more to society than agroecological farming. You actually pay three times for your food- once when you buy the food, once through your taxes which pay the agricultural subsidies needed to sustain this unsustainable type of production, and once to negate all the negative impacts that type of agriculture creates, ranging from the healthcare costs of farm workers exposed to pesticides, to de-polluting the water we drink. In France, for instance, the contribution of the agricultural sector to it's GDP is approximately 32 billion euros per year, whilst the cost of water treatment linked to agricultural pollution is estimated to be around 54 billions euros per year! And that is just for water pollution.

So, ultimately this means that agriculture as we currently do things costs us more as a society than it creates for us, which is economically absurd. We are destroying free processes, such as water and nutrient cycling, given to us by nature and we are instead investing in more and more complex and costly technologies to replace them.

Nutrient use

Here on Mazi, we like to say that we’re not culturing crops or trees, but that we’re culturing soil. Soil microbiology is the basis of the fertility of our ecosystems and therefore of our farms. The organisms in our soil play a vital role in synthesising and making nutrients available to our plants, storing and holding them until the plant needs them and then releasing them in a ready-made soluble form. Nutrients in conventional agriculture, on the other hand, are poured on by the tonne, and excess nutrients wash away, polluting our waterways and killing off marine life.

Microbiology also plays a huge role in disease suppression, irrigation (water movement through mycelial connections drastically increases water uptake in plants) and soil aggregation (meaning less soil erosion). Furthermore, it creates a healthy environment in which plants can pick and choose nutrients as they need, which puts the plants back in control - and who understands plants needs better than plants? This means as farmers we don’t have to waste time and energy micromanaging every need of the plant. So what do we do in conventional agriculture? Pour fungicides and pesticides on our fields to destroy microbial life in the soil. Nice!

And, for the sake of it, let’s actually look at the dominant way efficiency is understood in agriculture...

Yield per hectare

It is often argued that despite the gains in efficiency elsewhere in the system, the fact that organic production produces less is still a barrier in a world where we are told we need to produce more food. But on closer inspection, this gap between crop yields may not be all it seems.

The most extensive meta-analysis studying comparative yields to date did indeed report that, compared to conventional farms, organic production produced on average 20% less yields, echoing the ideas of previous studies. However, the report then goes onto consider this gap in more detail, breaking down the binary categories of conventional vs. organic and instead focusing attention on organic farms that practised cover-cropping, carefully managed rotations of crops and focused on building soil health - i.e. a more regenerative approach to organic farming. When weighing these factors into the equation, that gap of 20% halved to only 10%. The authors concluded that this gap may actually be even smaller due to bias in the data.  

Furthermore, nearly a third of all the food we produce goes straight in the bin. This means that the gap in production yields between conventional agriculture (both industrial and organic) compared with regenerative agriculture is actually less than the amount of food we throw away each year! Which really puts the concerns of yield loss into perspective.

As always, thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more agricultural musings,

Tash



 

To till or not to till?

Why do we till? Tilling for many people is synonymous with the way we practice agriculture nowadays. If I asked you to picture an agricultural scene, chances are you've probably pictured a big tractor hauling something metal and heavy through a field.

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There are countless things we do by rota everyday, without really taking a moment to think about why or how we're doing them, just because everyone else is and it seems like the done thing to do. The question is – could tilling be one of those things? Could something that is so emblematic of farming actually not be the best way of doing things, or – worse- could it even be harmful?

Why till?

Tilling, in one form or another, has been practiced for millennia, with forms of tilling even being documented since ancient Egyptian times.  As with all agricultural practices, tilling has gone through centuries of technological developments, moving from using simple hand-held tools and animals drawn ploughs, to the hefty high tech tractors we see today. These developments have allowed us to work the soil harder, longer, deeper and much more efficiently.

There's many good reasons why tilling at first seems like a great idea, which is why it gained such traction in agriculture in the first place. Initially, it was thought that by grinding up the soil into finer particulates, tilling made nutrients more easily accessible to the plant. And, at first glance, all seems well. Soil after tilling is fluffy and clean, plants are easily planted and seem to thrive in their new homes. But after time and on closer inspection, things aren't all rosy in the gardens after you till...


Why did the fungi leave the soil?

Because there wasn't 'mush-room'!.... Or was it because of tilling?

Tilling is a philosophy grounded predominantly in the idea that soil is mainly just a physical and chemical substrate. However, it does not take into account the biology that underlines the functioning of healthy soil. And the idea of no-till farming is largely due to exactly that biology- namely, an invisible ally called 'fungal mycelium', of which you can find literally miles and miles in just a spoonful of healthy soil.

This mycelium works in a multitude of ways to help plants, and therefore farmers, out. It helps unlock natural nutrients, rebuilds soil structure, aerates the soil and exponentially increases the water retention of the soil. Crucially, certain kinds of beneficial fungi make what is known as 'symbiotic relationships' with plant roots. Through these associations, fungi exchange carbohydrates and minerals for simple sugars produced by the plant and exuded through their root systems. In this way, fungal mycelium help to nourish plants. Mycelium has also been shown to play a crucial role in the transfer of water to plants, as well as other molecules such as enzymes in response to problems. In this way, ferrying nutrients, water and information, mycelium acts as the neural network, or, as Paul Stamets puts it, the 'internet' of the soil. However, tilling breaks up the long strands of fungal filaments, destroying the helpful mycelium and all the benefits along with it.

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Tilling practices also kill off other kinds of crucial soil microbiology. For example, tilling kills earthworms who play a crucial role in soil health, through aerating the soil with their burrows and digesting soil which creates nutritious humus. 

Furthermore, tilling, by turning and mixing the soil, breaks up all natural layering of the soil pulling finer soils up to the surface of the soil leaving it vulnerable to erosion, which washes away all the crucial nutrients we need for our plants to grow. This also works to compact the soil, which creates the anaerobic conditions in which plant pathogens thrive. The turning and exposing of soil also leaves it vulnerable to water being lost through evaporation which, especially in a Mediterranean context like Greece, is the last thing you want to see with such a scarce and important resource.

The reality of implementing no-till

It's not always easy to put ideology into action. No-till techniques require patience and it's clear that after centuries of working our soils, things won't happen overnight- instead, we have to rely on the old adage that 'good things come to those who wait'! Furthermore, no-till as a technique poses many technical challenges, from designing new affordable technologies such as no-dig seeders to building up biological knowledge of our soils. Clearly a lot of work is required to design new innovative approaches and techniques that allow farms to be run efficiently without the use of tilling.

However, we have taken inspiration from many encouraging studies that have emerged throughout the past few years, showing numerous benefits from practicing no-till agriculture. For instance, researchers from a 21 year study in Germany reported that implementing these practices slashed energy inputs by between half and two-thirds, drastically reduced pesticide and fertiliser inputs, increased biodiversity levels and improved water retention.

To begin our no-till experience, we have been hard at work here at Mazi creating a no-till vegetable garden, through the layering of our soil with manure, cardboard and woodchips, which will be added to year on year. We are also working to extend this philosophy across all of our land, implementing strategies help to rebuild and repair our degraded soils and experimenting techniques to help us run our farm without the help of a plough. We're excited to see how our soil quality will change over time and to share our progress with you as our project develops.

As always, thanks for reading our blog – we really appreciate the 'morel' support!

Tash

Why we think every farmer should have a microscope in their toolkit

At Mazi Farm, we believe that a microscope is perfectly at home on a farm and should become a key part of any farmer’s toolkit.

Measuring and monitoring soil health - why do it and how?

Measuring and monitoring soil health - why do it and how?

'To understand soil is to be aware of how everything affects and is affected by it. We are all part of the soil ecosystem'